Pavel Stroilov

Will Donald Trump dare to challenge Putin over his political prisoners?

Will Donald Trump dare to challenge Putin over his political prisoners?
Text settings

From Nixon’s ‘détente’ to Obama’s ‘reset’, every new US administration makes one attempt at reconciliation with Moscow. Today it’s Donald Trump’s turn, at his summit meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. At first, such meetings are sensationalised as historic turning points, with the future of the world hanging in the balance. But that view doesn’t usually last long. It only takes a couple of state-sponsored assassinations by Russia, and maybe a small war in addition, for the parties to realise that they are at cross-purposes.

And if you are in geopolitics, as a US president has to be, you have to talk to foreign dictators from time to time. That is not a treason in itself, but there are proper ways of going about it. Ronald Reagan began every summit meeting with his Soviet counterpart by handing over a list of Soviet political prisoners and pressing for their release. That did not take much time or effort, but from what I have seen of the archival records of Soviet internal discussions in that period, it made exactly the right impression on the Soviet leaders. It became clear to them that they could only negotiate with Reagan on his philosophical terms, where freedom for individuals comes before geopolitics. In their universe, individuals counted as small change and concessions on ‘human rights’ seemed a modest price for geopolitical gain. So the Soviets began reluctant reforms of their political system to get such annoying issues as political prisoners out of the way. Before long, they lost their entire global empire.

Putin’s mindset is similar to his Soviet predecessors – and President Trump would be well-advised to follow Reagan’s example next week.

He could start, for example, with Oleg Sentsov, the Crimean filmmaker who voiced his opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The next thing we heard about him was that he was charged with a ‘far-right terrorist conspiracy’ to blow up a monument to Comrade Lenin. At the trial, the key prosecution witnesses retracted their testimonies against Sentsov as given under torture, yet he was still sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. On 14 May, in a prison camp near the Arctic Circle, Sentsov went on hunger strike, demanding a release of 64 other Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia. His self-sacrificial plan apparently was to spoil the World Cup for Putin by dying in the middle of it. Sentsov (and 64 others on his list) should feature heavily in any discussion of Ukraine in Helsinki next week. If not – whatever else Trump says there – Putin will see this as a sign of weakness.

A similar mistake would be to discuss the threat of radical Islam without raising the situation in Chechnya, where Putin’s military victory over pro-independence ‘terrorists’ has established the most brutal ‘Islamic Republic’ one can imagine. The deputy police chief of Chechnya, Apti Aluadinov, has been caught on camera publicly instructing his subordinates to: ‘Jail whoever you can; if you have an opportunity to plant something in their pocket, do it, do what you like, kill whoever you like’. He cited the instructions of Putin’s viceroy in Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, and added:

‘I swear by Allah, I support this… I swear by Allah and the Quran, we will do a remarkably tough job on those cases. Wherever you can cling to a slightest thing by your nails, anyone who so much as squeaks a word against the authorities, I swear by Allah and the Quran, we’ll do up to as much as possible. I won’t say on camera what exactly, I will personally do my best to create a problem for that man; by Allah, I will.’

Indeed, widespread torture, disappearances, and murders in Kadyrov’s Chechnya are now notorious even by Russian standards. Most journalists and human rights activists who investigated those crimes were assassinated years ago. One survivor, Oyub Titiev, the head of Chechen branch of human rights NGO Memorial, worked to investigate a massacre which apparently took place on 26 January 2017. Before long, Titiev’s was stopped by Kadyrov’s ‘police’, who promptly produced a bag of cannabis and claimed to have discovered it in his car. Taken to a police station, Titiev refused to ‘confess’, so was taken to the same spot together with two ‘independent witnesses’. His car was again ‘stopped by the police’, and the same bag of cannabis was again ‘discovered’ in their presence. Planting drugs on people is a notorious tactic of Russian police against dissidents, but the accusation rings absurd to Titiev’s friends, who know him as a devout Muslim and an enthusiastic sportsman, of remarkably healthy lifestyle. He is now in prison, and his investigation has ground to a halt. Only this Monday, a local ‘court’ = authorised Titiev’s pre-trial detention for another six months. If convicted, he faces 10 years in prison.

Just as Kadyrov’s Chechnya is an extreme version of Putin’s Russia, so Titiev’s case represents the wider and longer nationwide campaign against Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest independent NGOs. Apart from monitoring contemporary human rights abuses, Memorial’s most impressive work, over some 30 years of its history, has been devoted to documenting and honouring names of millions of victims of Communist terror. However, uncovering mass graves of the Gulag is seen as subversive in today’s Russia. The nasty case of Yuri Dmitriev, the head (and the only employee) of Memorial’s branch in Karelia, near Finnish border, is meant to make that clear to any volunteers.

An industrial labourer turned local historian, Dmitriev has spent the past 30 years of his life finding and identifying countless hidden and unmarked graves of the Gulag in Karelia, and cross-referencing victims’ names in the archives of Stalin’s secret police. His selfless, meticulous work personally identified thousands of victims, uncovered many hitherto unknown mass graves, and encouraged some modest monuments to be placed and remembrance events to be held – until the authorities judged that to be subversive.

This April, the attempted show trial of Dmitriev, on charges of possession of indecent images, failed – the fabrication seemed embarrassingly obvious even for a Russian court. But in a nationwide campaign of political persecution, trifles such as a single collapsed trial count for little. Dmitriev’s acquittal was promptly quashed by a superior court, he was arrested again, and his retrial is expected in August. Its outcome will not depend on the strength of the evidence – but it may well depend on whether Trump dares to mention that case in Helsinki.

The list goes on and on. All these cases are internationally recognised as political, and there is no real controversy about them.

Trump’s claim to fame is that he does not shy away from speaking uncompromising truths. The Helsinki summit will test this. In similar situations in the past, too many of his predecessors were too easily manipulated into treating such cases as too awkward or too petty for the geopolitical drama at hand. That was a fundamental mistake, which ultimately has left us where we are today vis a vis Russia.

In the cynical language of geopolitics, you can make a plausible case for or against almost anything. Next week, Putin will be confident in arguing his case about the future of Syria, Iran, Ukraine, Europe, Asia, and the world. He would be much more uncomfortable if asked about a particular little man being tortured in a Russian jail. He won’t show that, but this is where he is weak and any Western leader is strong, and he knows it. He can deny the undeniable, but not defend the indefensible. It would be wise of President Trump to take advantage of that.

Pavel Stroilov is a Russian historian and political exile living in London